If a screenwriter had written a character like Harry Truman into the script of a volcano movie, it would have been scorned as a contrived and low-budget idea.
But there he was, in the flesh, as chiseled as the bark of an old-growth fir, liquored up by his whiskey-and-Cokes, and defiant right to the day he was entombed by the guts of the mountain whose shadow he refused to leave.
With his ten-dollar name and hell-no-I-won’t-go attitude, Truman was a made-for-prime-time folk hero. He was the proverbial farmer sitting on his front porch, cradling a shotgun and refusing to move when the bulldozers showed up to build a freeway.
Only problem was, this bulldozer wasn’t stopping for anyone.
The 83-year-old Truman, proprietor of the Mount St. Helens Lodge, oversaw a crumbling collection of cabins, 16 or so cats and a fleet of boats rented out in summers. He and his wife, Edna, had built the lodge and cabins. She had died three years earlier and Truman had closed the lodge, which was slowly being taken over, and smelling like, the cats.
Truman’s favorite drink was Schenley whiskey and Coke, and his favorite word was “goddam,” which he used at the rate of nearly one per sentence, unless another profanity intervened. (An interview with the National Geographic’s Rowe Findley, published shortly after the 1980 eruption, has 10 sentences with a total of eight blanks.)
One day in March 1980, Columbian reporter Tom Ryll was part of a ragtag posse of reporters that was chased out of the St. Helens timberline parking lot. They were drawn to the place by the mountain’s rumblings — they witnessed a heavy van rocking side to side as an earthquake rolled through the snow-covered terrain. USGS volcanologist David Johnston had helicoptered to the site, and when he learned they were there, he was not amused.
“This is an extremely dangerous place to be,” he said. “If it were to erupt right now, we would die.”
On the way back to civilization, Ryll and photographer Ralph Perry stopped off at Truman’s place. In minutes, a television crew showed up and started taping. The joke was on them; when the sequence aired, it was without sound. Truman’s language was as blue as the snow around the lodge was white.
But The Columbian cleaned it up, and quoted the rest, helping to burnish Truman’s image as a tough old buzzard. Perry’s photos, one of which was published in National Geographic, were masterpieces of windowlight photography, with Truman gesturing at his volcanic neighbor and peering at the peak through binoculars.
Even schoolkids got a chance to meet him. On May 14, he was flown by helicopter to Clear Lake School in Brooks, Ore., near Salem, to answer questions and sign autographs.
Harry Truman was just what the press needed, right down to his pink 1957 Cadillac. He was a human face in an otherwise remote area, and his colorful and not altogether sober language was a free-flowing and uninhibited antidote to the micrometer-precise words of the scientists.
“If I hadn’t been there these past five or six weeks,” he told reporters shortly before his death, “you tell me boys, what the media, the press and the TV would’ve gotten out of Mount St. Helens.” He was right.
About then he told Cowlitz County’s sheriff, “I have lived up here a long time and wouldn’t last two weeks if I had to move to some apartment down in Longview.”
So the officials let him stay. He didn’t last much longer.
Harry Truman spit in the face of death. On May 18, 1980, death responded with both barrels, pointed right down the volcano’s north flank and into his front door. Truman, the pink Cadillac, his herd of cats and a lot of good whiskey ended up beneath a couple hundred feet of rearranged volcano.
Originally published: May 15, 2005